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Ready to sound fancy? Proper uses of “who” and “whom” are the grammatical equivalent to raising your pinky when you take a sip of tea. To know which to use, and when, requires a thorough understanding of your parts of speech. You’ll get the hang of it in no time.

Parts of speech

“Who” is in the personal pronoun family, along with “I,” “you,” “he,” “she,” “it,” and “they.” Just like every other pronoun in this family, “who” comes with its own forms to signal each role it can play in a sentence. You’re probably familiar with the other pronouns and their forms.

Subject Object Possessive
I Me My
He Him His
She Her Hers
It It Its
They Them Theirs

“Who” should be on this table, as well, along with its variant forms, “whom,” and “whose.”

Subject Object Possessive
Who Whom Whose

A quick grammar review

The subject is the noun in the sentence that is performing the action. Every verb in every sentence has a subject.

The object is the noun in the sentence that the action is happening to. Not every sentence has an object, but when it does, it always comes after the verb.

In the sentences below, find the verbs first. Then find the subject that is performing those verbs. Then find the object that the verb is happening to, if there is one.

  • Charlie ran his race in record time and celebrated that night with a big party.

  • Mom left the gate open again, so now the dogs are running around the neighborhood.

  • After eating a huge lunch, she retired to her study to read.

  • Frankly, I worry too much.

  • Since Kevin got a new lawnmower for his birthday, he sold his old push mower.

In sentence 1, the first verbs are “ran” and “celebrated.”

Who ran and celebrated? “Charlie,” so “Charlie” is the subject.

Charlie ran what? “His race,” so “race” is the object.

Charlie celebrated what? “with a big party.” But this doesn’t answer the question of, “What did Charlie celebrate?” It answers the question, “How did Charlie celebrate?” To put it another way, the only nouns that come after the verb “celebrated” are “night” and “party.” Did Charlie celebrate the night? Did he celebrate the party? No, so “celebrated” has no object.

If the sentence read, “Charlie ran his race in record time and celebrated his achievement that night with a big party.” Would “celebrated” have an object? Yes. “Achievement” would be the object.

Here’s how the other sentences break down:

  • Mom left the gate open again, so now the dogs are running around the neighborhood.

  • After eating a huge lunch, she retired to her study to read.

  • Frankly, I worry too much.

  • Since Kevin got a new lawnmower for his birthday, he sold his old push mower.

When to use Whom

Use “whom” when the person/place/thing is the object of a verb, that is, when the action is being done to that person/place/thing. Check out this simple sentence:

Kevin punched whom?

Since “whom” is the object form of “who,” you can make sure by substituting “whom” with “him,” since “him” is the object form of “he.”

Kevin punched him?

This makes a lot more sense than

Kevin punched he?

Two tips to remember: objects always come after a verb. Always.

If the word follows a preposition like “to” or “for,” it’s always “whom.”

Here’s a few more examples:

  • I don’t know whom to address this letter to.

  • Sally’s brothers, all of whom attended college at the University of Tennessee, are very well-respected in their fields.

  • Don’t you remember? Roy is the man whom we met in Seattle.

In the first sentence, the “whom” is the person the letter will be addressed to. In the second sentence, the “whom” is part of a prepositional phrase, so it can’t function as a subject. In the third sentence, you could rearrange it to say, “We met him in Seattle.” Roy received the action of “met.”

When to use Who

“Who” is the form that functions as the subject. If you use the he/him trick and find the sentence makes sense with “he,” then you would use “who.”

Remember, the subject is the person performing the verb.

Here are a few examples:

  • Libby is the girl who accepted the job offer in France.

  • Do you remember who ran against Abraham Lincoln when he was elected president of the United States?

  • Jim’s brothers, who fell ill, were not allowed out to leave the house.

In sentence 1, “who” is the word performing the action of “accepted.” In sentence 2, you could replace “who” with “he,” and it would make sense with the verb “ran.” In sentence 3, “who” obviously is the one who “fell ill.”

A note, when the party being referred to by “who/whom” is plural, you can substitute “they/them” instead.

Pop Quiz

Check your understanding with the following sentences.

  1. The only people Kelly invited to her birthday party were people (who, whom) she considered true friends.

  2. (Who, Whom) is running after you?

  3. (Who, Whom) are you running from?

  4. Go to the field and find the man (who, whom) looks like the coach, and ask him when soccer tryouts are.

  5. A woman lives inside that house (who, whom) I love.

  6. The wise men (who, whom) came to visit Jesus came from the far East.

  7. I asked Jim and Luanne what time the would get here, neither of (who, whom) returned my text.

  8. (Who/whom) will you ask to be your business partner?

  9. Reggie shot the guys (who, whom) broke into his house.

  10. I’m not a person (who, whom) cooks very often.

Answers: 1. whom, 2. who, 3. whom, 4. who, 5. whom, 6. who, 7. whom, 8. whom, 9. who, 10. who